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Full Circle Associates' Online Interaction Tools Resource Sheet
Nancy White
Updated January 2002

The intent of this document is to itemize web-based online interaction tools and look at their application in group work online. It is a work in progress - and due to the evolving nature of both software and distributed work - it always will be. It is important to note that this is NOT a suggestion that the perfect platform has all these capabilities, but that these issues are considered when selecting, configuring and deploying online interaction tools. What is really needed? What will provide the most benefit while still keeping sufficient simplicity and usability? Note also that this worksheet does not currently address email list-related tools.

Tool Feature Purpose/Function/Notes Need It?
Asynchronous communication different time, different place  
Reading/Viewing Features    
Support linear and threaded messaging modes Discussion/interaction
Ability to choose most appropriate mode for situation. Both have strengths/weaknesses
Multiple posts can be seen at one time (no one click to view each message) Discussion/interaction
Ease of use, context, participation.
You want to avoid the need to click into each message to read it.
You want to be able to view entire threads or portions of threads for context and ease of reading
Offer different views of messages/threads Usability
User can choose view that best suits their need/learning style: outline, or view full text of all messages; view chronologically or by thread, list of most recent messages, oldest/newest sequence, etc.
Options: user control to view threaded vs. linear
Track what a user has read/not read by post Engagement/Usability
So you don't have to scroll through old messages. Not session based on the site overall, but on individual posts/threads.Ideally tied to management system that shows who has read what or "how many times" read.
Visually "flag" new posts with flag or icon. Engagement/Usability
"New" flag accurately indicating what a user has not read and which stays until user actually clicks into that thread. Important that this is a visual cue for fast scanning.
"Mark as Read" Engagement/Usability
Allows user to mark entire threads or collections of threads as read.
"Save as new" feature Engagement/Usability
Allows user to keep the "new" flag on a thread or post even after clicking in (purpose: flags a post they want to return to. This can also be accomplished with a book-marking feature. See next entry.)
User level message and thread book marking or "Notebook" feature Usability
To save and organize online content. I.E. folders, etc.
Email interface options Interaction
Alerts, full messages, digests - ideally where you can respond from a digest mode to individual threads via an email. Ability to set at site and individual user level. Rationale: some people can't/won't move from email mode. Push vs. pull
Offline participation options Ability to log on, download all new messages, compose responses offline and then log on to upload responses. Important for areas with limited access or bandwidth.
Search function Usability
Search messages and, if present, static content pages. Should allow site wide and specific sub space searching on larger sites.
"Email this thread to…" option "Email this thread to…" option Engagement
In open groups and communities, increase participation by "viral" marketing.
Post rating/filtering Ability for users to rate and filter posts of other users (i.e. Slashdot)
User able to see who has opened or read a message Create a sense of "listening." It is important to note that you can't know what a person has read, just what posts have scrolled across his or her screen!)
"Watch" lists (person/topic) Ability for individual users to track postings of particular users, threads, etc. Unified subscription utility is very useful that allows user to modify all their different watches and subscriptions.
Offline reading/posting capability Allow users to log on, download (synch) content, compose replies offline then log on to upload. Ease of use for folks who travel (plane work), inconsistent connectivity, costly bandwidth.
Posting Features    
Inline image capability Add visual richness to postings. Tradeoff can be page load time.
Message formatting capability Engagement
Allow user simple means for adding visual richness to response in the form of bolding, italics, color, fonts, basic html linking and more.
Ability to selectively quote previous message in reply Provide more context.
More important in mixed web/email usage where email users experience less content context.
File attachment Information sharing
Ability to attach file or files to a post. Note: Where the files are stored in the software database affects ability to create "snapshot" CD at completion.
Spell checker Usability. Should be able to add words to onboard "dictionary."
Free standing message editor Ability to save a message that is in progress in a post box if internet connection is lost offline clipboard to cut/paste
Ability to edit one's posts Time delimited or not - user level and/or site level control. There are reasons to have this turned on or off depending on the situation.
Ability to send private messages Synchronous and asynchronous
Encourage 1-to-1 communication where appropriate - "backchannel."
Ability to link between messages Cross references - easy syntax for users to link or refer to other messages.
User photos/icons attached to postings Identity
User photos or icons appear each time that user posts. User ability to turn off/on. Site-wide ability to turn off/on. (sysop)
Inline icons and emoticons Icons to flag a type of post (question, answer, statement, importance, etc) and emoticons to add "emotion/inflection" to text posts.
Ability to open several messages or thread at the same time Usability
To compile a response related to more than one post (weaving). Pop up windows. (Blackboard)
Headlines for posts Allow participants to indicate content of posting. Good for scanning.
Ability to let members start new discussions User ownershipCan be turned on/off selectively in different areas of an online space.
Administration Features    
Message "housekeeping" tools Ability for moderator to move posts, import, export stuff, hide messages, moderate, etc. Keeps online discussion spaces organized.
Access/group lists Allow different levels of access to various part of an interaction site. Ability to delegate access to the access lists by selective host rights.
Ability to offer different level of "host" rights to community members. Distribute user rights to increase sense of ownership, distribute work/control/authority as appropriate.
Batch user registration Allow sysop to register groups. Varying levels of sophistication that matter as size scales up. Can be applied to deleting old and unused users.
Tools to monitor activity Moderator and sysop ability to track registrations, logins, postings, knowing when people last logged on, what they have read, etc.) These metrics are used to understand participation dynamics. Ease of reporting of data a plus.
Easily customized look/feel Colors, logos and other interface changes completed with built in web interface - click and change. Requires no programming. Important when no programming resources available.
Ability to highly customize look feel (back end programming) Ability to program a wide variety of changes by using the systems programming language. In house or outsourced should be taken into consideration.
General tool "Tweakability" Ability to gradually modify space/interface as easily as possible to allow evolution of the site as the group evolves. Important for long term groups.
Ability to create subspaces / space segmentation Ability to create spaces for particular functions and control access to those spaces. The ability can be delegated.
Synchronous (chat, whiteboards, IM)    
Presence indicators Ability to see who is online
Instant messaging 1-to-1 real time messaging or full integration of existing IM tools. Could include "buddy lists."
Text chat Java and/or HTML options. Consideration for firewall issues. Ideally chat tool should have features that allow:
  • transcripts
  • user ability to choose text color/size
  • sizable window (additionally - pop out or float feature)
  • ability to moderate (auditorium chat)
  • breakout rooms
Audio chat Emerging tool that is basically group voice over IP. Often paired with text chat.
Web Tours Ability to "push" web pages to users browsers (synchronous)
Online live presentations (ppt, etc) Deliver PowerPoint presentations - with presenter and/or user control, "pointers" and other graphical enhancements (See HP Virtual Classroom, WebX, Centra, Placeware)
Application sharing Ability to demonstrate and use software applications from individual desktops to the group.
Real time feedback tools Hand raising, question boxes, annotation tools, etc. (HP Virtual Classroom)
Membership Directory Linked to registration/user database. Allow for inclusion of appropriate user information. Allow user to update. Allow user levels of permission of what is visible to all or not. Searchable.
Bio/personal information utility Identity, finding peopleThe user interface to the Membership Directory. Allow users to share levels of information and find other users (searchable fields)
Polling and survey tools Polling and survey tools that allow easy creation of polls, return of results to the group and/or sysop. Should be able to do one choice, multiple choice and/or text responses. Integrated into user database for storing results (particularly important for settings such as elearning).
Project management tools. Gannt charts, task timelines, alerts of due dates, mark-off of completed tasks, etc.
Decision making/prioritization and ranking tools Tools to support synchronous and asynchronous convergent processes.
Archiving function Ability to move completed threads to inactive but still accessible areas for reference or later archiving to permanent media (i.e. CD). Usually a host function.
CD Creation Utility Ability to create a "snap shot" CD of an entire online conference.
User interface personalization ("My View") Ability to move navigation and toolbars, setting viewing preferences, icons, etc.
Integration with other databases Ability to integrate with existing registration systems, databases, etc. Important for enterprise wide deployment, integration with e-commerce tools, etc. Single log on w/ multiple applications.
Multimedia Ability to embed/integrate audio and video (narrated slide presentations, streaming audio/video)
Email to all function Ability to send an email to members of an access list by either host or any individual user. Ability to open or close the latter option.
"Notice Board/Front Page" Ability to have a consistent "front door" through which all users enter and see important notices.
License or ASP Depending on situation, tool may need to be used in an internally hosted (license) situation or may be preferable in an ASP (hosted) situation. Must address firewall issues in either case.
Open Source or Proprietary Cost, technical deployment and philosophical issues.
Security Tool should offer appropriate levels of security (i.e. ssl, etc). This should also be reflected in site's privacy policy.
Content Management
Content management utilities Ability to sort, search and organize documents, links, etc. that are used as part of the online interaction. For information rich groups.
Editor/Review tools Review materials for publishing (vs. letting anyone publish anything)
Document check in/out Version control for shared authorship, revisions, etc.
Shared calendar/scheduling/alerts For scheduling (i.e. teams, events, etc). Possible integration into personal tools such as Outlook.
Personal webpages/publishing Provide web space and simple tools for members to publish their own material/web pages. Should be linked to bio/membership information.
Wiki space A group writing, editing tool offering a lot of flexibility for co-writing.
Blogs Self publishing, linking, RSS

Websites Listing, Reviewing Tools

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